polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Five Days of Anger in Cairo

by Danya Al Saleh and Mohammed Rafi Arefin

It is January 25th, 2011. An Egyptian organizer armed with nothing but his legs and a Twitter-enabled cellphone runs through downtown Cairo’s 19th-century Haussmannian system of boulevards, pavements and interlocking squares.

After being banished from downtown’s Midan Tahrir ("Liberation Square"), he flees to the 6th of October Bridge, joining a larger group that will eventually attempt to break riot police lines. Seemingly random waves of protests, each with their own organic, internal logic, march from Dokki, Shubra and Dar el-Salam, converging and dispersing fluidly as night approaches. As the government declares a halt on further protests, employing rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas to disperse the crowds, vast numbers organize in crowded Facebook forums to express solidarity with the movement and plan for tomorrow — January 26th.

We are inclined, as demonstrations unfold, to understand the city as merely a stage or backdrop. When turbulent events occur, we typically see the city as a stage, people and security forces as actors and social media as a new technology mysteriously working in a place-less cyberland, somewhere between the wings of an Egypt Air Boeing airplane and the heavens. With this model, pundits from both the Left and the Right can easily observe the present and predict the future, moving pieces of the game around an ossified map of Cairo.

But to properly situate the ongoing events in their due revolutionary context, we must ask a dialectical question that re-conceptualizes these factors. How has the city itself become a tool of rebellion?

Originally planned in the 1800s to monitor and limit such upheaval, the concentrically organized downtown modelled after the belle-epoque aesthetics of Paris imposed a sort of urban discipline that was to foster the creation of the "modern" and neatly "organized" Egyptian citizen. These same streets in the 2000s are bearing witness to revolutionary slogans such as, “Alshab Yureed Asqat Alnazam!” (“The People Want to Topple the System!”), embodying efforts to radically disorganize the current political, economic, and social system.

With this said, the city as a tool of rebellion is always in flux, contested by both the protesters and government security forces in both concrete and abstract spheres—all of which constantly articulate through one another to create the Cairo we are currently watching on Al-Jazeera.

Consider this: Midan Tahrir is based on a concentric overall plan that offers wide open spaces for thousands to gather.  If downtown were simply a grid system, the protesters could easily be dispersed with little hope of finding a similarly welcoming place to reassemble. But centers such as Talaat Harb and the 6th of October Bridge allow mass numbers to congregate and parade down boulevards greeted by giant metal statues of long-dead Egyptian revolutionaries. At the same time, the system that allows reassembly also denies it. The downtown streets, wide and spacious, can accommodate the easy passage of riot vans, large armored vehicles and water cannons, unlike other parts of Cairo.

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As water cannons and tear gas deny the protesters physical mobility, another street opens up: They take their struggle online. Congregating in a third space, organizers tweet about downtown offers of free food and drink while also advising others to carry scarves dipped in vinegar to counter the effects of American-manufactured tear gas.

We must always remember that these digital spaces rely on physical vantage points from which to be deployed. As cellphone service went down, high rises looming over a full Midan Tahrir were perfectly situated to capture the scene far away from the fists of plainclothes officers.

But let us also remember that these hotels and office buildings house the privileged few foreigners, journalists and businessmen with access to high-speed Internet and web cams. And so, while much of Cairo remained invisible, the happenings of Tahrir were broadcast across the world on www.ustream.tv.

On the night of Thursday the 27th and early on Friday, Internet access and mobile service were switched off. Without such means of communication, how would a city of 8 million people know when and where to meet?

Nicknamed the city of a thousand minarets, Cairo itself offered protesters a thousand places to meet at a weekly specified time. Midday prayer on Friday, a grassroots organizer’s dream, required no text message or Facebook event pages. And so it was in Cairo’s mosques—some of which predate the Ottoman era—where the fourth “Day of Anger” began.

The past few days have not been determined solely by the Army and the Police, Hosni Mubarak or the Protests, Media or Rumors, Pamphlets or Twitter, Facebook or SMS, but instead by the meeting of feet with boulevards, the intersection of Internet access and privilege and the fusion of history with rubber-coated steel bullets. Revolution and unrest in Cairo must be understood as such.

Not all the protesters who woke up on Friday morning had read the 26-page manual that had been distributed throughout the city the night before. Despite this fact, the pamphlet’s ideas, hearkening back to older forms of protest while also sharing new means of resistance, strategically influenced the day’s events.

It is in the streets of Cairo, which prior to January 25th were often labelled quiescent and stagnant, that the manual of what it means to revolt in the modern metropolis is being written for the world to see.

Danya Al-Saleh is a senior Political Science major at UC Berkeley, with research interests in colonial education and its role in the (re)making of colonial subjects/cities in the Middle East and in private universities and urbanization. She spent the past year in Cairo learning Arabic and teaching English at the Spirit of Youth's Recycling School.

Mohammed Rafi Arefin is a senior Critical Development Studies major at UC Berkeley pursuing issues of access to education, housing (both informal and high-end) and sanitation systems. He is also committed to teaching and education, having taught a history and practice of vinyl DJing class at Berkeley and worked in illiteracy eradication programs in Cairo.

They share the following: "We have recently returned from Cairo and are safe. We have been in contact via telephone with friends in Egypt, and as events in Cairo and around Egypt turn increasingly violent, we would like to express our concern for the safety of our friends in the Mokattam/Manshiyat Naser area, Ramsis downtown, Zamalek and suburbs of Cairo and the family of friends in Alexandria."

Credits: Images from Danya Al Saleh and Mohammed Rafi Arefin.